Open Government + Civic Engagement = Government Engagement?

Photo courtesy of Jim Henderson (via Wikis Take Manhattan)

Photo courtesy of Jim Henderson (via Wikis Take Manhattan)

At TOPP we talk a lot about technology promoting open government and civic engagement, but projects may fail to bring about real change if they don’t actively engage government as well.  Take Stimulus Watch, a great project which furthers these two goals, but—as Ian points out in his recent post— assumes that politicians will take the initiative to visit the site and base their decisions on its results. A few of us from different divisions at TOPP have started work on a project called Build a Bike Rack, where we want to combine citizen activism and volunteer labor with governmental needs.

The situation: Transportation Alternatives Brooklyn Committee wants to help NYC DOT install bike parking more quickly and efficiently. DOT’s CityRacks program has a mandate to install 1200 new bike racks by the end of 2009, but assessment of potential spots is a major bottleneck in this process.

The current CityRacks website allows for one-off rack location requests from the public, but their process is served better by a bulk order for one neighborhood that can be installed en masse. In fact, the Park Slope Civic Council has successfully submitted such a bulk order, conducting both physical assessment and community outreach (signatured statements of support from property or business owners) before handing the order in to Community Board 6 for sign off and DOT implementation. Unfortunately, very few people know the PSCC did this and can’t easily replicate the process because there was no online documentation.

The solution? A mapping tool allowing community/government collaboration to open and streamline CityRacks’ process.

There are some precedents—such as SeeClickFix, FixMyStreet, and Vespucci—but we believe none of them takes an approach ideally suited to the needs of this situation (and probably others). These are some areas in which we want to build upon their work:

Starting Small
We are not attempting to write an application that fixes every planning issue in New York City. Rather, we are focusing on a specific planning issue, in a specific place to maximize integration between a governmental process and a particular community’s needs. We plan to expand this tool for use throughout the city (and hope it might prove useful for other planning issues too), but believe we’ll get better results by starting with the specific. The concept of submitting requests in a “project set,” for example, may be the single most helpful outcome of this project for the DOT, but is not emphasized in preceding projects like SeeClickFix and FixMyStreet.

Proactive Rather than Reactive
One criticism of SeeClickFix is that it could fuel more reactive nagging than positive action on the part of citizens. In San Francisco, for example, 311 told Streetsblog that “increased use of SeeClickFix wouldn’t translate into action because [it] won’t be coordinated with their internal work flow and won’t improve efficiency.” The SF Department of Public Works also said the software “wouldn’t improve their ability to respond to the public.” While open government and community input are important objectives, we believe it is crucial to clearly embed working with—rather than against—government if we expect positive outcomes. Build a Bike Rack aims to bolster a struggling government project lacking proper resources by drawing in community support and (wo)manpower.  By facilitating volunteer work to assess locations, we hope this project will actually enable rapid real-world action rather than just online action.

Providing Useful Geographic Information
We’ve also noticed that other projects haven’t included much geographic information beyond what’s on your basic Google map. We intend to include data on things like existing bike infrastructure, institutional buildings, and Community Districts to bring this information to public’s attention and help communities make smarter decisions. Crowdsourcing data and research is great, but we’ll be able to get further if we start with more.

By engaging with government from the get-go, we hope they’ll be more amenable to our attempt to open their process. We’ll follow up with another post on the progress of this project and more details about the technology and design in the near future.

-Lily Bernheimer & Ivan Willig